Throughout American history, whenever the executive branches’ power has been expanded or contracted it is invariably the result of crisis. The Civil War expanded Abraham Lincoln’s presidential powers to the point that many scholars suggest he paradoxically usurped the Constitution in order to preserve it.
As President Woodrow Wilson entered the United States in the Great War, Congress and the Supreme Court aided and abetted his desires to keep the world safe for democracy by infringing on the First Amendment domestically with the Espionage Act of 1917.
The Great Depression and World War II expanded the powers of President Franklin D. Roosevelt at home and abroad, respectfully, including by executive order, which authorized the internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans. More recently, we witnessed the expansion of presidential power in the aftermath of 9/11.
In moments of crisis, the public naturally gravitates toward the executive branch for leadership. Without 9/11, it is unlikely there would have been a “war on terror,” a preemptive strike against a sovereign nation that bore no relationship to the initial tragedy, or passage of the Patriot Act.
Conversely, presidents immediately following Lincoln saw their authority diminish, as did Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in the aftermath of Watergate.
But President Trump may be the first commander in chief to expand the authority of the executive branch without the benefit of crisis. Using a toxic elixir made primarily of political fear and civic ignorance, the president dons a Teflon coating — only time will tell if it will become a permanent fixture of the Oval Office.
The president appears to be the beneficiary of GOP fear within Congress. During the impeachment hearings a number of Republican senators noted wrongdoing on the president’s part but did not see a reason to convict him of obstructing Congress or abusing power.
The conclusion reached was not surprising and may indeed be the correct one. While voting not to hear witnesses may have been good for the president politically, it sent a message to the nation at-large that some are indeed above the law.
There is a reason Sen. Edmund Ross is one of the senators highlighted in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. Ross, a Kansas Republican, cast the critical vote in the impeachment proceeding against President Andrew Johnson. Though Ross held a reputation for brazen partisanship, he did not believe violating the Tenure of Office Act was sufficient for removing the president. Ross’ vote saved Johnson’s presidency, but in effect put an end to Ross’ senatorial career.
There are few senators, regardless of party, walking the halls Congress willing to follow Ross’ example. Though Ross was vindicated 19 years after his death, when the Tenure of Office Act was deemed unconstitutional, it is a legacy that does not provide the requisite immediate gratification.
Not even the most partisan sycophant would argue those who voted against hearing witnesses during the Trump impeachment hearings would do likewise if the president were a member of the opposite party.
There will invariably come a point, in this contemporary moment, where political affiliation will be deemed superior to our democratic guardrails. A blind and unhealthy forbearance is reserved exclusively for the side with which one aligns, while reckless overreach is viewed merely as the cost of battling the opposition.
Can such polarities coexist in a democratic republic? The short answer is: “No!” The current extreme polarization, not witnessed since the Civil War, possesses as its primary goal the elimination of the opposition.
In this climate the president, through audacious ignorance and congressional fear, stretches the executive branch beyond anything conceived by the Founders. The only way to offer this as good for America is to embrace the behavior of this president with universal acceptance as the prevailing standard for the executive branch.
Somehow I don’t believe many feel that way, at least not when it’s a member of the opposition party in possession of the nuclear launch codes. In the larger picture, what we’re witnessing is part of a Faustian bargain to accept such radical departures from our democratic norms, offering party affiliation as one aspect of a homogenized definition of an “American.”
For many, motivated by the fear of possible change, this is the preferred option. Better to have a veneer democratic coating with a corroded underbelly of authoritarian rule than for America to organically become the diverse nation that was destined, while remaining rooted in the values articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Our democratic values must remain superior to any party affiliation. When that is no longer true, whatever America has stood for since 1776 to the present moment would be reduced to an allegory that is periodically told around the campfire.